Fears of new bloodbath in Idlib as Assad troops go on the offensive

Fears of new bloodbath in Idlib as Assad troops go on the offensive
A wedding convoy drives along a residential area in Idlib province as fears grew on Sunday of a new Syrian regime offensive in the militant-held region. (AFP)
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Updated 17 August 2020

Fears of new bloodbath in Idlib as Assad troops go on the offensive

Fears of new bloodbath in Idlib as Assad troops go on the offensive
  • Battle looms after Russia quits joint patrols with Turkey, analysts tell Arab News

ANKARA: Syrian leader Bashar Assad has re-mobilized his forces in northwest Syria, raising fears of a new bloodbath in militant-controlled Idlib province.

The move follows Russia’s suspension of joint military patrols with Turkish armed forces along the M4 highway in what is supposed to be a de-escalation zone.

The patrols began in March, along the Aleppo-Latakia road. The last one took place on Aug. 12 and Moscow suspended them two days later.

Since then, Assad regime forces have launched rocket attacks against Al-Fterah, Sfuhen and Kansafra in Jabal Al-Zawiyah in the southern countryside of Idlib. 

The area is controlled by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, who used rockets and heavy machine guns to attack the regime-controlled village of Beit Hasanou in Sahl Al-Ghab in northwest Hama.

The stage may be set for a new “battle of Idlib,” experts told Arab News. 

Navar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said the combatants were treading a thin line.

“Hezbollah moved some of its forces in a bid to launch an attack to the area in the south of the M4 highway,” he told Arab News. 

“This zone where the joint patrols are suspended is elevated, and whoever controls this region can control the whole of Idlib. So, it is a very strategic area where sooner or later some skirmish will happen.

“There is a high percentage chance of an operation by the regime. It will be a narrow-scale battle. The Turks are not ready to withdraw from this strategic area or allow the opposition to withdraw either. Sooner or later, the Russians will control this area.

“Moscow initially planned to monitor the area with no opposition forces present, but that did not happen because Turkey, unwilling to concede to Russia, mobilized some of its forces and opposition forces there, triggering another source of tension between Moscow and Ankara.”

Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst, said Russia’s suspension of joint patrols in Idlib may be a temporary security matter as they consider their options. 

“The patrols have been coming under attack, from peaceful protesters at first, but increasingly militarily, especially since last month,” he said.

“Moscow’s intentions are obviously always suspect in Syria and there have been signs of a renewed regime coalition offensive against Idlib in recent days, so Russia’s suspension of the patrols could be a tactical issue related to that.”

“Turkey, likewise, continues to have the same policy of preserving at least northern Idlib as a buffer zone to avoid a destabilizing wave of refugees laced with terrorists being pushed into Turkish territory.”